Sunday, June 13, 2021

When Your Ending Isn't Happily Ever After

East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen
Print from "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"
by Kay Nielsen, 1914
Author's Note: I was so grateful and honored to be asked to give a sermon on the subject of story for the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in May 2021. I know I'm a lazy blogger, but I'm far from a lazy writer. This assignment was a gift of grace that helped me to process some ideas that have been floating around in my brain for quite a while now. I've included the reading I chose from Margaret Atwood's short story, "Happy Endings," as a preface to the sermon. In a season where we all have a chance to think about what we want our stories to look like, I hope this provokes some thoughts and conversationswith yourself or with those you love.

Reading: “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood
Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood wrote a thought-provoking short story called “Happy Endings.” This reading includes the beginning and a few lines near the end of the story. 

John and Mary meet.  

What happens next?  

If you want a happy ending, try A. 

A. John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go up. Eventually, when they can afford live-in help, they have two children, to whom they are devoted. The children turn out well. John and Mary have a stimulating and challenging sex life and worthwhile friends. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story. 

[Variations B-F on this theme follow, where Mary falls in love with John, but John does not love Mary, then the reverse, then explorations of what happens to their subsequent partners, and finally, a John Le Carre version where John is a revolutionary and Mary is a spy]. Then Atwood writes this gut-wrenching truth: 

You'll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don't be deluded by any other endings, they're all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.  

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:  

John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die (Atwood). 


I have a confession: Most of my notions about love and life were formed by Andrew Lang’s Blue Book of Fairy Tales. 

I read this book—along with its sister volumes, the yellow, the red, the purple, and yes, even the olive—shortly after I learned the magic of letters making words, and words making thoughts, and thoughts making stories, and stories making life make sense.  

What are the stories that shaped you?  “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a Norwegian folktale in Lang’s Blue Book, is a seminal text in my life. I discovered this powerful story of love, transformation, jealousy, and perseverance at the tender age of 7. One of my most prized possessions is an original art deco print by Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen from the 1914 illustrated version I encountered as a child. The print was given to me by a dear friend when I was in a particularly low and dark place. It now hangs on my living room wall, reminding me that tragedy sometimes precedes happy endings. 

As an assistant professor of English who teaches world mythology and literary analysis, I guess I am considered an expert in the subject of this sermon: the power of storytelling, how the stories we love can shape our lives, and why interrogating those stories is important. 

But I feel more like a life-long learner. 

“East of the Sun and West of the Moon” tells the story of a girl who, against her better judgment, agrees to leave her family for a white bear. The girl is the youngest daughter of a poor family, and the bear promises that if she goes with him, he will lift her family out of poverty. She travels on his back to a beautiful castle where all her wishes are granted. But at night, she discovers a strange secret: the bear transforms into a man.  

After a few months of this, the girl becomes lonely and asks to visit her family, but the bear warns her not to talk with her mother alone. Of course, she does this anyway because fairy tale. Her mother, upon hearing her daughter’s odd story, gives the girl a candle stub to hide away. When she returns to the castle, the girl lights the candle that night and sees a handsome prince in her bed. She falls immediately and completely in love. 

The prince wakes up and informs the girl that he must now leave her to go east of the sun and west of the moon, and he will have to marry a long-nosed troll princess, and she shouldn’t try to follow him because it’s impossible. 

Their love is impossible. She can never have what she wants. She has ruined everything.  

In the morning, the girl finds herself alone in a wood. The castle and the prince have vanished. 

Well. Game on. The girl wanders for days until she meets an old woman who tells her that her quest is indeed impossible, but gives her a horse and a golden apple, just in case.  

The girl rides the horse for days and meets another old woman with a golden spinning wheel. This old woman also disparages the girl’s chances but mentions that the east wind might have an idea where the prince had gone—probably not, but it never hurts to ask. The second old woman gives the girl a fresh horse and the golden spinning wheel and sends her on her way. 

The east wind tells the girl he too has heard rumors, but she’ll have to go ask the West Wind for specifics. Ultimately, the East, West, and South winds escort the girl to the North Wind. The North Wind knows how to get there, but he is pretty grumpy about it—he once blew a single aspen leaf east of the sun and west of the moon, and it wore him out for literally days. Still, if the girl isn’t afraid, no matter how wild the ride gets, he agrees to take her there. 

She isn’t afraid. Against all the odds, she reaches the castle that is east of the sun and west of the moon, where the first person she meets is, of course, the infamous long-nosed troll princess. The girl trades the golden apple the first old woman gave her for a night with the prince, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t wake her beloved. 

The next morning, the troll princess kicks her out. The girl then trades the golden spinning wheel the second old woman gave her for another night with the prince. Fortunately, some good Christians overhear their conversation and let the prince know about it. That night, the prince pretends to drink his sleeping potion but tosses it over his shoulder when the troll princess isn’t looking, so he is awake when the girl enters his bedroom.  

They joyfully reunite and hatch a plan to free the prince. The next day, the day that the prince is supposed to marry the troll princess, the girl will—get this—engage in a contest with her rival to wash the prince’s shirt. 

Inevitably, the troll princess lacks good laundering skills, and of course, since the girl is a Christian (I am still not sure if this is correlation or causality), she is able to wash the shirt as white as snow. The troll princess explodes on the spot. The prince is freed from the curse, marries the girl, and the prince and princess free all the Christians who had been trapped east of the sun and west of the moon by the trolls. Good triumphs over evil, love conquers all, and they all live happily ever after. 

What I learned from this story that I first read at the age of seven shaped my views of romantic relationships for many years. These were my four takeaways:  

  1. Bears aren’t actually bears. They are handsome princes inside. 
  2. If you try to find out the truth about bears and are disappointed, it’s all your fault. 
  3. You have to work really hard and sacrifice everything if you want to be with your true love. 
  4. If you’re really good at getting stains out of shirts, you will beat the troll princess and win the prince’s hand in marriage. 

I am really good at getting stains out of shirts. 

However, these lessons have not served me well in my actual adult romantic relationships. Spoiler alert: Life is not a fairy tale. I’m just now learning this at the age of 7 squared—I'd like to think by sharing my sad journey, I’ll save those of you who are younger than me the wasted time, but life doesn’t always work out that way. We have to live and learn from our own stories.  

In real life, I have found, sometimes bears are bears. 

If you find out the truth about them, you will be disappointed, but it’s probably NOT your fault. Sometimes the trolls win. And finally, you can work really hard for true love and still not achieve it—or after achieving it, you can lose it all—even if, and I cannot stress this enough, you are really good at getting stains out of shirts. 

I’ve learned these truths the hard way, just as you have, through experience--through the messy failures of life and love that still sting. Divorce, mental illness, addiction. Patriarchy, privilege, power imbalances. 

But I’ve also learned, like you have, that we don’t have to always be brave and beautiful and good. Sometimes we can be scared and lonely and exhausted. Sometimes, we can even be disappointed.  

This is the truth we learn in Margaret Atwood’s short story, “Happy Endings.” Another confession: Option A, where John and Mary meet, fall in love, marry, have a wonderful life together, and die of old age was the life story I wanted and perhaps still pine for. I was well on this path (or so I thought) until my 35th year, when everything blew up. Icons were smashed, trust was betrayed, dreams were shattered. Worst of all, beloved, precious, innocent children were irreparably harmed, and nothing in my life since can make up for that loss.  

I hate divorce. Specifically, I hated my divorce. I didn’t want to go through it, and I don’t ever want to go through divorce again. But in the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.” 

And the older I get, the more I realize just how much my fairy tale notions of love and life have made it hard for me to let go of the past. I tell myself that I had the fairy tale, and that I lost it—it was all my fault--because that’s what happened in the story.  

But is this true?  

After option A, Margaret Atwood spins out many other versions of the “John meets Mary” story. Sometimes John loves Mary, but Mary doesn't love John. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes they find happiness with new partners. Sometimes they don’t. But the ending is always the same: John and Mary die. 

“So much for endings,” Atwood says. “Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with. That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.  

Now try How and Why.” (Atwood)

How and Why. And favoring the stretch in between. 

If you’re like me, 2020 gave you had a bit more time to think than usual. The pandemic brought many changes, and the one I welcomed—and feared—most was quiet. I had time to sit with my own thoughts and really listen to them—and to interrogate them. In the stillness, away from the busyness of pre-pandemic life, I realized something about my relationship with stories. I realized that I was a servant to a narrative that was not my own. 

I was living my life as a what and a what and a what. I was not thinking about how and why. 

What is your story’s plot? How did the pandemic interrupt that plot? How does that story fit in this world of Big Lies and “alternative facts”? What happened to you? And then what happened? What happened after that? Do you know how and why? 

The pandemic shoved the randomness and inevitability of our mortality right in our faces. We could not look away. 

So many of us began to interrogate our cultural stories, asking questions like these: 

  • Why do too many Black men die at the hands of police? 
  • Why does late-stage capitalism fail so many individuals and communities? 
  • Why does the United States have so many policies that are hostile to women? 
  • Who cares what bathrooms or pronouns people use anyway? 

We still don’t have all the answers, but asking the questions—challenging the narrative—is the first step to change. 

It must not be the only step. We all deserve to have stories that shape our lives in positive, productive, healthy ways. 

Let's interrogate “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” The story follows the conventions of the hero’s journey—the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, the talismans and mentors, the battles and ultimate triumphs. This story is a universal monomyth for a good reason—it speaks to all of us in some way. But Margaret Atwood could suggest several different paths to the story’s happy ending. 

Option A: The girl sticks by her initial gut instinct to refuse the bear’s advances. He leaves, never to return. The girl goes off to university on scholarship and makes an important discovery. She saves her family through her own hard work and ingenuity, and they all live happily ever after. 

Option B: When the prince is whisked away against his will to the castle, he rejects the finality and ultimate power of the troll princess’s curse. He works with the Christians to overpower the curse and return to the girl he loves. They all live happily ever after. 

Option C: The girl starts out on a journey to find the prince but changes her mind and decides to apprentice with the first old woman. She learns plant magic and becomes a successful healer. She is beloved in her community and helps her family to escape poverty through her skill and knowledge. She never marries and trains one of her nieces in her healing arts. They all live happily ever after. 

Option D: The girl makes it all the way to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. But instead of competing with the troll princess, the two fall in love. They share stories about their awful experiences with the prince and decide to jointly rule the kingdom. The prince is banished and they all live happily ever after (except for the prince. But let’s face it: He is problematic). 

There are, of course, many other options, depending on how and why the girl (or the prince) decides to interrupt the narrative.  

Another question to ask yourself is this: Am I actually the hero in this story? 

In all our favorite stories, we tend to see ourselves as the heroes. But what if we are the villains in somebody else’s story? 

In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” I have personally identified with the brave girl who fights for true love ever since I was seven years old. But to my ex-husband’s current wife, I’m the long-nosed troll princess, always whining about how he was promised to me. In their version of the story, his current wife is the brave, plucky heroine who escaped from poverty and won the handsome prince. I am indisputably the villain in their fairy tale. To be fair, my nose is somewhat long, and I do enjoy resting in the shade under bridges on the Boise River Greenbelt (but did I mention that I am really good at getting stains out of shirts? Because I am). 

What I’ve learned from the "alternative facts” of my post-divorce life is this: No matter how bad things get, I don’t ever want to be the villain in anyone else’s story.  

To a certain extent, our stories are inevitable—John, Mary, all of us are going to die. Honestly, there should be less fear and more relief in knowing the ending, like when we skip to the end of a suspenseful book because we can’t wait to learn what happens. I’ve been thinking about this through the pandemic too, as it coincided with my entrance into a tunnel that any adult who lost a parent when they were younger will recognize. My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 19 and he was 47—my age when the pandemic started. He died when I was 22 and he was 50. I have now entered my 50th year. 

The tunnel is a space of uncertainty and loss and grief, mourning for the parent whose loss means that we now have no role model for our future years. What lies ahead is truly a mystery. 

But we have more control over the “how and the why” than we think we do. Learning to interrogate the stories that shape us is the work of a lifetime. As the novelist Salman Rushdie wrote in a May 2021 opinion piece for the New York Times, we can learn a lot about our values when we ask ourselves which books we love. Rushdie says, 

“I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”  

That has certainly been true in my experience. 

What are the stories and books you love? Is it time to revisit a beloved classic, or to replace it with something new? Are your beloved stories serving your narrative? Or are they hindering you?  

I cannot part with “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” But today, I love it for a new reason. As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, I’ve decided to reject the identities of both the girl and the troll princess. Now, I’m the second old woman. I still believe in the fairy tale and the power of true love, even though the world has given me good reason to doubt. But I’ll keep spinning my yarn on my golden spinning wheel, providing help and the answers I know, but leaving the hard work of questing to others. 

And maybe, if we’re lucky, we will all live happily ever after. 

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